Educated Girls

Free To Shine exists to prevent school-aged girls being trafficked into the commercial sex industry. We achieve this by strengthening family and community systems to prioritise the safety and education of their children.

When Nicky’s time working with survivors of sex trafficking was nearing an end she asked them what they wanted and how we could help.

Go out into the villages, find the girls who aren’t in school and get them into school

Not one of them had been in school when they were trafficked. They believed if they had been in school, they wouldn’t have been trafficked; they would have been safe. They would have had professionals looking out for them.

Education has multiple benefits including providing children with increased opportunities in life, and helping them reach their full potential. Yet that is not why Free To Shine funds girls to go to school. They’re added benefits. The reason we fund girls access to school is because it affords them some safety and protection. Our very reason for existing is to prevent school-aged girls being tortured and sold for sex.

Getting girls and boys into schools and keeping them there is a vital step to reducing their vulnerability to trafficking.1
- The International Labour Organisation

We do not focus on girls education because girls have less access to school than boys, they don’t. Boys in Cambodia have a higher rate of not attending or completing school than girls, and boys who discontinue school are more likely to enter construction work, or be enslaved on a Thai fishing boat. We focus on girls education because of the 6.3 million people in forced commercial sexual exploitation, 4.9 million are girls or women.2

Being in school means a girl is integrated into a formal network of support, is regularly accounted for by a professional, and the likelihood of her and her family being approached by a sex trafficker is reduced. Out-of-school girls in rural communities with low levels of education are easy targets for traffickers to manipulate, because they are more likely to accept false promises of work.

Prior to the pandemic, when school attendance was impacted by lockdowns, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, whom Free To Shine have an MOU with, reported that:

< 21%

21.54% of boys and 13.94% of girls do not complete primary school.3

> 60%

59.33% of boys and 49.81% of girls do not complete grade 9.3

> 80%

79.91% of boys and 75.49% of girls do not complete high school.3

It is estimated that 11 million girls worldwide will never return to school post pandemic.4 The prevalence of child marriage had decreased worldwide from one in four girls married a decade ago to approximately one in five. Before the pandemic, more than 100 million girls were expected to marry before their eighteenth birthday in the next decade. Yet as a result of the pandemic up to 10 million more girls are now at risk of becoming child brides.5 ​​The World Bank reports that universal secondary education for girls could virtually eliminate child marriage. Each year of secondary education reduces the likelihood of marrying as a child by five percentage points or more.6

Of the survivors of sex trafficking that Nicky worked with,
all had discontinued school before the end of grade 7.  
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Why is it that 17.74% of children don’t complete primary school, 54.57% don’t complete grade 9 and 77.7% don’t complete grade 12?


ONE – The Genocide

During the genocide by the Khmer Rouge nearly two million Cambodians (25%of the total population) died as a result of disease, lack of medicines and medical services, starvation, execution, and exhaustion from overwork. Those who lived were severely traumatised by their experiences.7

90%of all school buildings were destroyed. Libraries were gutted and their contents burned, and nearly all school laboratory equipment was smashed.8 80% of teachers were killed.9 The education system, like the whole country, takes a very long time to rebuild post war.

Due to the Khmer Rouge and its aftermath most grandparents and parents of today’s children only have a grade 2-5 education. This includes many village leaders.

TWO – The Law

The law states the government must provide access to education, not that children must attend.

“The State shall provide free primary and secondary education to all citizens in public schools. Citizens shall receive education for at least 9 years.”10 – the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Therefore, rather than education being compulsory, it is somewhat optional. It’s expected where possible. If you live in a family with not enough money – for food, house repairs, or your family is struggling to pay off loans, it is acceptable for children to discontinue school and help parents earn money.

Since the law states the government must provide education until grade 9 most children have a primary and secondary school within cycling distance to their homes. High schools though (grades 10-12) are fewer and further between, and attending high school often requires the child/young person to move to another area, away from their family. This works for those young people who have a suitable extended family member ie an aunt or uncle living and working in a town or city with a high school, but for others attending high school it requires renting a share-room with other young people, and for those whose parents cannot afford that rent, it means the young person has to work to afford independent living – a tough call for a 15 year old!

THREE – Poverty

Poverty is the biggest reason we have found for children discontinuing school. 35% of Cambodians live in multidimensional poverty.11

MoEYS and UNICEF found an increase in the likelihood of a child not completing school if they are from poorer and rural households, and that girls are more likely to be out of school in rural areas, whereas boys are more likely to be out of school in urban areas.12 46% of children who were not attending school stated the reason as having to work to contribute to household income.13

Once Free To Shine had enrolled the first 200 girls onto our program we found getting girls into school was relatively easy, keeping them there was the hard part. They were perpetually at risk of discontinuing school despite being enrolled on our program. The main reasons were; not being able to afford the curriculum classes they needed to pass their exams, not enough food to eat, and wanting to leave school to work to help their parents repair their house, or pay back loans (often taken when an adult had fallen sick and lost work or incurred medical expenses). To keep girls in school, Free To Shine made the decision to help girls and their families achieve their basic human rights of safe drinking water, enough food, and adequate shelter.

Educated girls earn higher salaries. A single additional year of schooling can increase adult earnings by up to 20%.14 420 million people around the world would be lifted out of poverty by achieving a secondary education. This would cut the number of people living in poverty by more than half.15

FOUR – Progression is dependent upon passing exams

In Cambodia a student cannot progress to the next grade without passing their end of year exams. School is technically free, yet the school system only provides classes to cover part of the curriculum. If a student does not pay for additional curriculum classes, to learn the other part of the curriculum, he or she is highly unlikely to pass their end of year exams.

29% of students (those still studying) have reported needing to repeat at least one grade.16 This survey does not include those who discontinued school. Parents generally support their children after failing one grade, but if a child fails that grade again, or later fails another grade, parents in low-income families begin to consider how much extra it might cost to get this child through school. Knowing the child probably won’t make it to the end of school anyway, the sacrifice to the family to afford the additional costs associated with this child attending school are often considered not worth the added pressure upon the family. It’s often determined that the family would do better if that child worked, helping to bring in money instead of going to school.


Free To Shine is a child protection organisation whose very reason for existing is to prevent school-aged girls being trafficked into the commercial sex industry.

Our team of professionals conduct monthly safety visits and social work interventions, focusing on strengthening family and community systems to prioritise the safety and education of their children. We support girls to stay in school by providing financial and material support and improving their access to basic rights.

View References
  1. 'Training Manual to Fight Trafficking in Children for Labour, Sexual and Other Forms of Exploitation', International Labour Office, International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), Geneva: ILO, 2009, 4 v.,, (accessed 8 October 2021)
  2. 8.7 Alliance, ‘Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: forced labour and forced marriage, September 2022’ International Labour Organization (ILO), Walk Free, and International Organization for Migration (IOM) 2022, p35 and 45,—ed_norm/—ipec/documents/publication/wcms_854733.pdf (accessed 27 September 2022).
  3. MoEYS, 'Education Statistics and Indicators 2018/2019', MoEYS, 2019, p. 55,, (accessed 14 October 2021)
  4. (accessed 15 October 2021)
  5. UNICEF: (accessed 15 October 2021)
  6. (accessed 14 October 2021)
  7. Documentation Center of Cambodia, A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979), Second Edition 2020. p.3:,
    (accessed 8 October 2021)
  8. Clayton, 'Building the New Cambodia: Educational Destruction and Construction under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979', History of Education, Qtrly, vol 38, no 1, 1998, p. 6.
  9. Brinkley, Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, New York, Public Affairs, 2011, p. 7.
  10. 'The Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia' (accessed 8 October 2021)
  11. Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI), 'The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index Report: The Most Detailed Picture to Date of the World's Poorest People' Oxford: University of Oxford, 2018, p. 15,, (accessed 8 October 2021).
  12. MoEYS and UNICEF, 'Global Initiative on Out of School Children Cambodia Country Study', MoEYS, 2015 ,(accessed 14 October 2021)
  13. National Institute of Statistics, Ministry of Planning Phnom Penh, December 2020. Report of Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey 2019/20. (accessed 14 October 2021
  14. 'Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The gender snapshot 2021': (accessed 15 October 2021).
  15. (accessed 14 October 2021)
  16. MoEYS (2018). Education in Cambodia: Findings from Cambodia's experience in PISA for Development. Phnom Penh: OECD, 2018, p.21, (accessed 14 October 2021).